Week 292: Balloons, Neutrality, and Relays

This last weekend our neighborhood had its annual block party, which starts with a bike parade for the kids and ends up with the adults sprawled all over someone’s yard and thinking about going back for another hot dog. Along the way there are also some games for the kids, one of which led to quite a sense of victory for Mandy.

The game in question can at its most basic level be expressed as “Tie balloons to kids’ ankles and tell them to stomp on all balloons but their own.” This sounded to me like a good recipe for broken toes and feet, but the last tyke standing would be awarded prizes so we sent both Sam and Mandy in. Sam was almost immediately knocked out of the game when a particularly shall we say “husky” child clomped up behind her and stomped on her baloon. She was distraught.

Mandy, on the other hand, adopted an approach more akin to Sweeden’s stance on world wars, only with fewer banks. She mostly just stood very still and made no aggressive moves of any kind while the other kids had their wars and their casualties. Several times a larger kid would approach her and raise his or her foot in preparation to pop Mandy’s balloon, but her large, innocent eyes and diminutive stature actually moved them all to back down and find a target that would not result in the shame that comes from crushing an unoffensive and harmless soul. At one point Geralyn nudged Mandy into the fray, and in a moment of unwarranted optimism she charged a hulking boy who was five times her size and who had probably driven himself to the festivities. But such was the power of Mandy’s timidity that even this lad took one look at her and actually RETREATED.

In the end, Mandy WON THE GAME simply by being small and meek while everyone else annihilated each other. She won her pick from a grab bag of toys, and for the rest of the night she would run up to me and shout “Daddy, I’m really good at the balloon stomping game!” I think that there is some very powerful lesson here for us adults, if only we could put our finger on it.

Sam, on the other hand, had to learn about defeat that night. Besides the balloon stomping game, there was another event involving relays. The gauntlet of events that the kids were supposed to run flummoxed even me, complicated and intricate as it was. There were like twelve steps involved, each of increasing complexity with the final one actually requiring calculus. I think. Sam joined her team in high spirits, but by the time her turn came up in the relays she exited the field in near hysterics, screaming “IT’S TOO COMPLICATED!” She then ran over to me apparently seething that she had won neither the balloon stomping game (a fact made even more stinging, no doubt, by the fact that Mandy had won) nor this relay race.

I tried to comfort her, but really what are you supposed to do in these kinds of situations? I took the opportunity to re-explain the concept of sportsmanship and that she should still attempt a competition even if she thinks she won’t win because it’s fun and she may surprise herself. I even pointed out that her team had benefited from her dropping out because they had one less teammate who had to complete the relay, but quickly re-evaluated this particular tactic as a failure when it caused Sam to nearly burst into new tears.

Still, they had a good time on balance and Sam soon forgot her frustrations as she ran off to make new friends with the children with whom she had been competing with just moments before. She’s a great kid.

Book Review: Sabriel


Sabriel by Garth Nix (awesome name, by the way) is the first in a series of fantasy novels for young adults. It features the eponymous girl, who is the latest in a long line of Necromancers –magicians who deal with death and getting the dead to shuffle around on this side of the grave. Only Sabriel’s clan is unique in that they specialize in putting the dead back down and protecting the world from them. So when her father dies, Sabriel has to shoulder the mantle of his office –until she can track him down and bring him back from the dead. Along the way she must face –yes, you guessed it– an ancient and deadly evil that threatens the entire world.

Nix has some really neat ideas in Sabriel. The whole necromancer angle is interesting, too, and Nix sets up some intriguing world building with the magic and silver bells that Sabriel and her brood use to ply their craft. So that’s cool. He also sets up two “kingdoms” that exist in parallel –one magical and old world, and the other non-magical and modern by the standards of early 20th century England. Sabriel is from the former and raised in the latter, presenting a nice duality that makes her easier for young readers to identify with her.

But that’s also a problem. The whole book is so incredibly, aggressively Mary Sue that it was hard to see Sabriel as anything other than a vehicle for fantasy fulfillment. This is a young girl who is mature beyond her years, the best at everything she does, unusually powerful, and without any real flaw. She’s just there to be a bland stand-in for the author and/or any young person reading the book. In fact, this is a criticism that can be leveled at just about any character in the book, especially Sabriel’s love interest, “Touchstone.” Who is, of course, really a handsome prince with all the personality of a brick. None of the characters have any spark, any sense of personality, no emotional range, and they speak in dialog that could probably be delivered with more passion by a Speak-And-Spell. Also, Sabriel has a pet cat. That talks. No, not kidding.

I can cut Sabriel some slack for being a young adult book. That’s clearly the audience, and it could be argued that Nix is doing some of this deliberately and the act is not unlike feeding bland, formless food to a baby just learning the mechanics of eating. And maybe the book would appeal to that kind of audience. Everyone else, though, should be aware that despite the glowing reviews it’s not the kind of YA book that crosses over well to other audiences.

Movie Review: The Bridge On the River Kwai

The Bridge on the River Kwai

Note: This is #34 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

Of all the wartime movies I’ve seen so far in this experiment, I think The Bridge On the River Kwai comes in pretty high on the list, if not at the top. It’s got some great characters, some psychological heft, some moral quandaries, and explosions. In addition to all that, it’s got one of the most tense and riveting climax scenes that I’ve seen in a long time –I was literally leaning towards my TV with my hands balled up in my lap until it was over.

The story, based on a novel of the same name, follows characters that all start off as prisoners in the same Taiwanese labor camp during World War II, but which soon branch off. The first group is a large group of British soldiers whose leader Obi-Wan Kenobi (played by Alec Guinness and for some reason constantly referred to as “Colonel Nicholson”) sees it as their duty to help the camp’s Japanese commander build a bridge over the River Kwai. This has the troublesome effect of allowing the Japanese railroad to traverse the bridge and thus aid the enemy’s war effort, but Nicholson’s warped sense of duty compels him to lead his men in giving their utmost effort anyway.

The story’s second group of characters starts with U.S. Navy Commander Shears (played by William Holden), who escapes the labor camp only to be forced into a small commando unit whose mission is to return to the newly constructed bridge and blow it up real good. Accompanying him are Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) from the British Special Forces and a wet behind the ears Canadian Lieutenant.

What I liked about this movie was the tension and relationship that developed between the British Colonel Nicholson and the Japanese camp commander and how Nicholson gets it into his head that it’s actually his duty to help the Japanese. There’s some great contortion of morals and ideals going on there, and it’s interesting to see the viewpoints of all three groups ironically juxtaposed. The movie does a great job of capturing and communicating this kind of dramatic tension that the audience can see clearly even if none of the individual characters can until the final seconds of the film.

Week 291: Kindergarten, Batman, and Barbie

The big news this week is that Sam started kindergarten, thus initiating her long years of toil in one educational system or another. Being the fearless person she is, though, Sam was extremely excited about this event, though the most important thing to her seemed to be letting her ride the bus. Which she did later in the week. I happened to be home one morning when the bus came, and let me tell you it is a decidedly odd feeling to place your child on a vehicle and then stand at the curb while it drives away with her in it and you not in it. Would she come back? (Spoiler: yes, she did.)

Now each night at dinner we are regaled with stories about what she did each day and what she learned and what the RULES were for any given activity. On the flip side, it only took ONE day at preschool before Sam started to complain that the sippy cup we had sent with her snack was met with tittering laughter from the other children, and that it would simply not do. So the next day Geralyn sent Sam’s liquid refreshment sloshing around in a Batman squeeze bottle which seemed to excite Sam in the morning, but that night she was back to complaining that according to one of her tablemates Batman was “stupid.” I flew off the handle a bit at this, explaining that Batman was in fact five different kinds of badass, and could take down this little naysayer and crush his windpipe with barely any effort. The next morning Sam’s backpack included a drink in a plain white squeeze bottle adorned only with my employer’s logo. This apparently meets with everyone’s satisfaction, which is good because the next option was an old coffee mug that says “Working for the Weekend.”

Sam’s exploration of gender norms has also taken an ugly right turn at the school library, as evidenced by her selection of Barbie and the Diamond Castle, which has the honor of being THE stupidest thing I have ever read. Really, it’s aggressively, horribly dumb –not only for the whole Barbie princess thing, but because the story is utterly nonsensical. As far as I can tell it was written by some raving lunatic draped in a pink and lavender straight jacket. Here’s two girls! They find a magic rock! There’s a dragon and an evil witch! And a magic mirror! And here are some cute boys! Tee hee hee! Ugh. I felt compelled to criticize the book on account of its banality, but Sam took this as an affront to her personal tastes and I had to suffer through it. Fortunately the book was due back after a week and we moved on to The Wizard of Oz, which BOTH of us are enjoying much more.

On the Mandy front, she starts her pre-pre-preschool program next week, a fact she jumps to call attention to whenever anyone comments about Sam’s going to school. Being a lot like her sister when it comes to embracing new situations, I’m sure she’ll do fine, though, and Geralyn will suddenly find herself with a few hours a couple of days a week in which she will simply have to think about doing mommy stuff instead of actually doing it.

Book Review: The End of Overeating

The End of Overeating

The full title here is The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite and in this book former FDA Commissioner David Kessler blends together such disparate fields as biology, psychology, marketing, and sociology to help explain why so many Americans are so fat. The main culprits, he argues, are precisely engineered “hyperpalatable foods” that lead many people into a syndrome of behaviors that he groups together under the term “conditioned hypereating.” Which is a term that, frankly, sounds ridiculous, but he makes a really good set of arguments to go along with it.

I really like the fact that Kessler draws upon so many different fields to explain his thesis. He starts off exploring the world of modern industrial foods and goes into how these products have been meticulously designed to have just the right balance of sugar, fat, and salt to act on the biological and psychological levers that get you to not only get you to eat them, but to crave them and to gorge yourself on them to the point of overeating. He also describes how a lot of food that you may think of as “whole” have already been pre-processed more than you’d guess. This stuff is incredibly eye opening, and the details that Kessler provides on how these food-like products are developed and delivered (packaging and presentation matter, too) really made me not want to ever set foot inside an Applebee’s again. The big food corporations are downright insidious in their manipulation, but ultimately we have nobody to blame but ourselves.

Later in the book Kessler attempts to formulate a plan for readers to follow in order to end this cycle of overeating, but this part fell kind of flat to me since most of the advice that he spends pages and pages giving can really just be boiled down to “put down the fork, fattie.” Still, I appreciate his NOT veering into touchy-feelie territory when dispensing diet advice, and I think that the most useful thing he does in the whole book is the expose on industrial food contained in the earlier parts. That knowledge alone has made me less likely to indulge in those manufactured substances simply because I now view them with the same jaded attitude as I view TV commercials for a particular brand of blue jeans or a billboard for a particular sports car. Those things are less food and more some unnatural thing, some product cobbled together from sugar, fat, and salt. And they’re simply a lot less appealing viewed in the light that Kessler shines upon them.

Movie Review: The Searchers (1956)

The Searchers

Note: This is #33 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

Well, hello John Wayne. Nice to see you here in your cowboy hat. I’ve heard a lot about you. Care to swagger around and punch somebody out after delivering some pithy one-liner?

No? Well, in fact The Searchers is a lot more serious and epic for a western than I might have expected. It tells the story of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), a retired Civil War soldier who moves in with his brother and his family. When a raid by Comanche warriors leaves most of that family dead and two of Ethan’s nieces abducted, he joins a search party along with his nephew Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) and a posse of local law enforcement types. Thus begins an epic story that spans the years-long search for one surviving niece, Debbie.

What I liked about The Searchers was how it dealt with many mature themes inhabiting many shades of gray. Ethan Edwards is not a typical white hat hero like in Shane. Indeed, right from the offset you get the impression that he’s not particularly intent on retrieving his abducted niece alive, and would be fine with her being killed as long as it meant an end to her captivity by the Comanches. This forms the central source of dramatic tension between Ethan and Debbie’s brother, Martin, and it culminates in a genuinely tense scene at the end of the movie.

The movie also deals directly and honestly with the issue of racism between the white settlers and the Comanches, but what’s doubly interesting is that it looks at the issue from the side of the Native American characters as well. They’re clearly villainous (what with all the murder, rape, and kidnapping), but it’s also made clear that they have compelling reasons for hating their White enemies. It’s also somewhat startling here in 2009 to see the movie’s supposed hero be so overtly racist against the Comanches –almost as startling as it was to be confronted with the root causes of that hatred.

So, the whole movie is thoughtfully done and presents you with several interesting moral quandaries, and it doesn’t hurt that at one level it’s also an exciting adventure story full of action and drama.

Week 290: Sleepover, Thanks, and Green Beans

Fresh off our vacation in Tulsa, Geralyn swept up the kids and took them out to The Farm for a girls only getaway. I stayed home by myself to play lots of video games so I didn’t get to see any of the antics at the farm, but Geralyn did tell me about one in particular. One night Sam slept over in the other cabin with her cousin Molly and her mother Nancy. In the middle of the night Nancy woke up to find Sam standing next to her bed, staring at her silently and intensely.

“Oh, sweetie,” Nancy said, “What’s wrong? Do you miss your mom?”


“Are you cold?”




“Do you need to use the bathroom?”


“Then what’s the matter? Why can’t you sleep?”

“Because you’re SNORING.”

Poor Nancy, an accomplished mother herself, went to go sleep on the couch.

Mandy is having a better week in terms of the whole clingy thing. She’ll still throw a screaming fit occasionally, but now she’ll at least let me pick her up when she does. It’s funny to see what mannerisms and figures of speech she’s borrowing from Sam and the rest of us, as her speech is really coming along. It cracks me up every time she says, off-handedly, “Thanks, Dad.” whenever I do something for her. That and “You can eat that.” seem to be her favorite sayings lately. As was with Sam at that age, I’m occasionally baffled at hearing such human sounding utterances coming from someone who has not spoken much for the majority of the time that I’ve known her. It is odd.

Speaking of eating and screaming, we had an EPIC battle of wills the other night with Sam over green beans, complete with half an hour of shrieking and banging on the table –90% of which was done by Sam. We’re not normally the “clear your plate” kind of parents, mostly because we want our kids to learn how to regulate their own food intake and stop eating when full. But sometimes it’s not about food. It’s about asserting that I am the parent and YOU are the child, I SWEAR TO GOD SAMANTHA.

Sam is a strong-willed person, and sometimes we let her run with that because it’s who she is. But sometimes she decides to lock horns in a battle of wills just for the sake of defying us and I get it into my head that I’d better not back down. This is really one of the things about parenthood where I had to change my thinking from my pre-parenting days. As egalitarian as you may be in other matters, there’s no getting around the fact that the parent-child relationship is an lopsided one. What’s more it NEEDS to be. “Because I’m your father” is totally a valid reason for a command sometimes, because if they defy you here pretty soon they’re going to be selling cigarettes to kittens and punching old men in the park. I’VE SEEN IT HAPPEN. Eventually there will be a time for them to break free (c.f., teenagers), but age 5 is not it.

So with that attitude in mind both Geralyn and I settled in to win the fight over the green beans if it meant holding her there until bedtime. Sam screamed, was sent to her room, came back, screamed some more, cried, was sent to her room, came back, and beat on the table with her fists. The thing that eventually broke Sam was when her friends from next door showed up in the back yard and Mandy (who had eaten her dinner) announced that she was going out to play with them. This turned Sam’s freakout meter up to 11 and snapped the knob right off, but she shoveled green beans in her face between shrieks of protest just so that her sister couldn’t partake of some activity without her being there to oversee it.

Not to get all Sun Tzu on y’all, but sometimes you gotta turn their strengths against them to win.

Book Review; The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book

Wait, wait, all right. Dude. Let’s take like The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling and retell it, but like instead of making it a story about an orphan boy raised by the creatures of the jungle let’s have the kid grow up in a graveyard. So instead of a python we’ll have a vampire. And instead of baboons we’ll have ghouls. And instead of a bear we’ll have a …a werewolf. Dude.

All glibness aside, that’s actually a pretty cool idea and I’m glad that author Neil Gaiman got it, because I liked The Graveyard Book quite a bit. As I said, it kind of takes The Jungle Book concept and switches it around so that little Nobody Owens (“Nob” for short) is adopted by the ghosts of a pastoral graveyard when the rest of his family is murdered by a mysterious figure that ends up dogging him for most of the book. Nob is bright, precocious, and largely unaware of the outside world because he is forbidden from venturing outside the graveyard gates. But he is given certain magical powers otherwise possessed only by the dead, and he makes the most of his life among death.

I should mention that this is pretty clearly a book for young adults, so the language is pretty simple, there’s not much violence, and there are no adult situations of the salacious type. But as you might guess from a book about the citizens of a cemetery, The Graveyard Book does tackle one theme typically reserved for adults: death. It’s everywhere in the book, and Gaiman uses that as an opportunity to talk about the flip side of that coin: life and the potential it brings. In a lot of ways The Graveyard Book is a coming of age book, as Nob develops a very blase attitude towards death to the point of not caring if he dies –almost all of his best friends are dead, after all.
But in the course of his character arc, Nob learns to value his own life and the potential that he has to do anything, to go anywhere, and to be anyone. It’s a theme that a lot of young adults will find compelling, and Gaiman executes it really well while keeping the plot brisk and the setting imaginative enough to keep you turning the pages. And the last couple of chapters in particular are bittersweet partings that I think every one of us can relate to.

Movie Review: Rear Window (1954)

Rear Window

Note: This is #32 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

Rear Window (the first of several Alfred Hitchcock flicks in this experiment) is another one of those movies that has permeated popular culture to such a degree that I felt I was already familiar with it before I even popped the disk in. In keeping with great Internet Nerd traditions I considered writing my opinion about it before actually watching it, but I’m glad I didn’t. Turns out, I had the whole thing wrong, especially the ending.

The story involves L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart), a professional and perhaps overly adventurous photographer recovering from a broken leg. Jeffries has apparently never heard of books or the television, because he passes all his time sitting in a wheelchair and spying on his nearby neighbors through windows thrown open due to the summer heat. When Jeffries thinks he sees evidence that one of his neighbors has committed murder, he convinces his girlfriend and nurse that he’s right, but the local authorities are more skeptical. Things come to a climax when the trio takes things into their own hands.

From what I’ve read, this is supposedly one of Hitchcock’s most thrilling and suspensful movies, but honestly I really don’t get it. It’s interesting and compelling the way that the clues are doled out and it has some really interesting things to say about how people connect (or fail to connect) with their neighbors in a modern, urban setting and instead tend to objectify them. The former is all the more relevant today given how people connect through the Internet and related technology but rarely know the people living across the street from them. If someone were to remake this movie today for some reason they could really run with that theme. But was the movie suspensful? Not really. Not until the very end and only then for one scene.

But speaking of the end, I had it totally wrong –I thought I knew something about the presumed guilt of the supposed murderer, but I was mildly befuddled when the credits rolled and I figured out that I had been wrong all the time. I imagine that might have colored my viewing of things, and that if I had been closer to a true first-time viewer things might have been more suspenseful. Maybe.

Week 289: Tulsa, Bartlesville, and Carthage

Wow, big week. And there’s a lot of pictures. After a pool party on Sunday, we all piled in the car and drove down to Tulsa, Oklahoma to spend a week visiting my mom and sister. There are a lot of things to do in Tulsa if you try really, really hard. We saw a gigantic pair of praying hands, blew up an inflatable pool, went to La Fortune Park, played at this sprinkler park on Riverside, and visited our alma mater. And that’s just what we did with the kids. Geralyn and I found time to go shopping, go out to dinner/drinks with several friends, and go to a movie.

And actually, the thing I left off that list is probably the most interesting thing: we made an hour-long drive to Bartlesville, Oklahoma to visit the “Kiddie Park”, where “the last train ride is always free” and driven by psychotic killer clowns judging by their website. Imagine a graveyard where traveling carnivals send all their rides that have become too broken down for even THEM to operate. That’s pretty much it. The first ride that Sam attempted to enjoy refused to start, so the slack-jawed attendant put his 15 minutes of new employee orientation to use by kicking it. When that didn’t work, he was evidently out of ideas so he hollared over to his supervisor, who waddled over and squinted at the machine (which housed an increasingly worried Samantha). Then HE kicked the machine. When that produced the same nil effect as before, he shrugged, put an “Out of Order” sign on the ride, and told me it would be a while. I was allowed to retrieve my daughter.

That initial introduction aside, the kids actually had a BLAST at this thing and I’d call the trip a success. Plus the rides were like 25 cents each, so it kind of helped offset the twelve bucks worth of gas it cost to get out there and back.

Also of note on this trip was an experiment with letting the girls share a room given that they were in short supply with so many people staying at my mom’s house. This did not go well because Mandy was put in what is less of a “pack and play” and more of a “pack and climb in and out at will, thereby annoying your big sister.” They actually stayed in their room most of the time, but would shriek, laugh, and bang stuff around. This until Sam decided that she had had enough, but was unable to contain the genie once out of its bottle. Or crib, as it were.

Anyway, on the way back home we stopped off at the Precious Moments Chapel in Carthage, Missouri. Because Geralyn insisted and we needed a place to eat our lunch. Actually, the grounds were beautiful, and if you can get past the fact that the chapel looks like someone sprayed an entire can of cute all over the place, it was kind of neat. Well, once you got past the fact that it’s essentially all about dead children. The girls liked it, except when Mandy started grabbing and waving around the little $60 statues in the gift shop.

Whew. So, good trip. Thanks again to my mom and sister Shawn for helping take care of the girls while Ger and I tried to make a vacation out of it. Much appreciated. The girls are already talking about how much they miss you.

Movie Review: On the Waterfront (1954)

On the Waterfront

Note: This is #31 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

More Marlin Brando doing his Marlin Brando thing. And you know what? It ain’t bad. On the Waterfront tells the story of Terry Malloy (Brando), a minor cog in the mafia machine that controls everything coming in New Jersey’s shipping docks, including the labor unions. Malloy is tricked into playing a bigger role than he would have liked in the assassination of a potential witness against the mob, and when he takes a fancy to the victim’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) he starts to develop a conscience about this whole thing. Mixed in there is local priest Father Barry (Karl Malden) who has also had it up to here with all this corruption, gosh darn it.

There’s a lot to recommend about On the Waterfront. It’s got a great, mature story that seems to be the prototype for a lot of other films in the gangster genre, but it seems to stay its own creation. Apparently it was based largely on true events as chronicled in a series of Pulitzer-winning articles published in a New York newspaper.

Brando gives a fantastic performance as Terry Malloy, making him come across as a genuinely torn individual who is swept up in everything around him and unsure of what to do. I liked him a lot better here than I did in A Streetcar Named Desire. He just seemed a lot more believable here Malden is also great as Father Barry, even if he does gnaw on the scenery a few times.

So, good stuff. You should watch it.

Week 288: Scavenger Hunts and Enthusiasm

Generally I’m not one of those parents that obsesses over his kids’ milestones and deadlines on some developmental timetable. I figure if I keep them from being eaten by hyenas, the rest will sort itself out. That said, I did get a little concerned a while back that Sam couldn’t sound out words. I think half the problem is that she misinterprets any instructions we give her as an invitation to engage in a battle of wills, so that “b” and “d” become interchangeable no matter how exasperated we and the rest of the English speaking world got with her. But still, I figured some brushing up was needed before Sam hit kindergarten in a few weeks and if I had to engage in some subterfuge to get it done so be it.

Like so many other problems, I solved this one with a game. Specifically, a scavenger hunt where I would write out words on a slip of paper then ask Sam to identify the letters and sound them out. Once the code is deciphered she has to go and find the thing described by the word. Or sometimes she’ll take pictures of them with her camera. I started out simple with “dog” or “cup” but then moved on to more abstract stuff like “liquid,” “hole,” and “wooden.” Turns out Sam LOVES this game. She’s got all the letters down pat (except she sometimes mistakes an “e” for a “g” for some reason) and is working on combining them into sounds.

The really cool thing is that the other morning she came in and showed me where she had taken yesterday’s list and transcribed it in her own fledgling hand. So, mission accomplished. So far.

Mandy is exhibiting a bit less of the clinginess from last week, though she’s still definitely got a parental preference. She’s gotten even more vocal lately, though, and has taken to repeating whatever she hears. The funny thing is that she’ll often put her own spin and emphasis on things, which can make for a drastically different message. So while Sam and Geralyn may mutter “Have a nice day” while I’m on my way out in the morning, Mandy will pipe up with “Dad, have a GREAT day!” Like she really means it. And so I do.

Red Faction Guerrilla

Red Faction Guerrilla (RFG) is the latest in a series of shooters involving the liberation of Mars from a bunch of jerks. This third entry into the series mixes the formula up a bit, though. The first change is that RFG is an “open world” game where you can freely run or drive around, tackling missions at your leisure and constantly checking the map to figure out where the heck you are. This works well, even if Mars is a pretty boring and sterile place relative to the venues of other open world games.

The other major change to the Red Faction formula involves what you do once you’re done running around pounding random people with sledgehammers and you decide to actually hear out one of your fellow revolutionaries and engage in some got guerrilla action. Like any good guerrilla fighter, your job here is most often to sneak/dash in and blow stuff up something important. Previous games in the series emphasized the game’s “geo mod” technology which let you use large explosive devices to slowly and pointlessly deform the game’s terrain. In RFG, on the other hand, the landscape is immutable but the buildings? Those can totally be blasted, knocked, and smashed into so many stray girders and rubble. In fact, I insist.

This is pretty much the hook that most of the game’s action is hung, and it REALLY works because reducing buildings what looks like Figure A in an IKEA assembly instruction manual is WAY more fun than you’d ever have guessed. The core mechanic also carries over to the game’s impressive online multiplayer where several modes challenge you to destroy/defend targets or just go nuts and cause more damage to ANY structure than your opponents can. All in all, the destruction mechanic is so great that it’s made me think about how much every other game sucks for not including it.

About my only substantial complaint about RFG is that I want a little more of certain things and less of others. For example, there are only a few missions related to the storyline that present you with new info, new experiences, and unique situations. These are all great missions, but there are just too few of them.

In between the good stuff the game will invite you to putz around on side missions it calls “guerrilla activities.” There are only a few different kinds of these, and once you’ve done each of them a couple of times there’s really no incentive to accept the constant invitations to do the same thing in a slightly different setting. And on top of that, some of them, like the ones where you try to blow stuff up from the turret of a moving vehicle or the ones where you have to drive a car halfway across the planet within an arbitrary time limit, are so difficult that they seem outright broken. The key to not rage quitting this game is to just avoid those missions entirely and have fun with the ones that let you blow stuff up.

Still, fantastic game and worth it alone for the smash and dash gameplay and the wonder you’ll get from the first time you detonate a half dozen remote charges and watch as your target building groans and teeters for a few seconds before finally tipping over into a cloud of twisted metal and concrete dust. It’s just great.

See the Wikipedia entry for more info and links to screenshots, etc.